Bart Logan: Sports Masochist

Ask any good Cleveland sports fan about their most memorable professional sports moment. If they’re under the age of 46, you can probably prepare yourself for their answer by watching something upbeat, you know, like Schindler’s List.

They’re going to tell you about The Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88, The Move, Game Seven, The 2007 ALCS and of course the most recent addition to the Cleveland curse hierarchy — The Decision.

Cheering for Cleveland sports a lot like the 4-H livestock auction at the county fair.

A kid raises an animal — let’s say a lamb — from the time it was an infant. The kid cares for it and cherishes it much like a pet, but doesn’t really getting much in return. It’s a labor of love.

Then when that proud moment arrives and the kid can show off his lamb to the rest of the public there’s a sick cruel twist — they’re bidding on it to eat it. At least with the 4-H auction they don’t slaughter the lamb right in front of the kid.

With the globalization of the sport everyone else calls “football” I naturally had to adopt a team. I chose Newcastle United because A) my dad got one of their jerseys (“kits” as the Brits say) when he was across the pond and brought it home for me B) they were a proud English club with a devoted fan base and rich history and C) they weren’t one of the “Big Four” that won by simply outspending the other clubs.

Coincidentally, Newcastle also had not won a single trophy since 1969 — not a domestic trophy since 1955.

In other words, I chose the Cleveland sports equivalent of the Barclay’s Premier League. Today was The Decision on the Tyneside.

With just seven hours remaining in the January transfer window, one of two opportunities during the year that teams can bid on players to add to their roster, Newcastle accepted a $56 million bid for from Liverpool for local star Andy Carroll.

Carroll, a 22-year-old striker, is among the leading scorers in the Premier League. He came up through the Newcastle system and had expressed on numerous occasions that he wanted to remain at his hometown club for life.

Then apparently, he decided he liked the ridiculous wages Liverpool were offering and owner Mike Ashley (a complete knit wit that is not fit to run a club) ‘reluctantly’ accepted the bid (tin foil hat on).

The Magpies just lost their leading scorer — a player to build the club around, an England International — and were left with no time, or negotiating power, to bring in anything resembling a feasible replacement.

You see it, right?

God just doesn’t want me to be happy, I figured. He doesn’t ever want me to be able to cheer for a winner. He takes pleasure in building up my hopes only to tear me down again. And again.

Then I realized the difference — I didn’t really choose to love Cleveland sports. My family was from the area and had always loved Cleveland sports, and therefore I adopted that love. But even my old man had the brains to adopt big club (Chelsea) when he jumped on the European Football bandwagon. But not me.

No I chose Newcastle — a club rich in history, but of late the butt-end of every Premier League joke. One that was relegated two years ago, but returned to top flight this season and boasted one of the most exciting young players in the game.

No they weren’t going to break into the top four just yet, but they were making stride. Europe couldn’t be that far down the road. Maybe they could make a cheeky run at the Carling or FA Cups next season? With Andy Carroll, a No. 9 ready to take his place among the Newcastle legends, there was finally room to be optimistic.

I should’ve known better. But, it wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t know what to do — wouldn’t know how to gloat — if I could cheer for a winner (Ed Note: I am an Ohio State fan. They have been relatively successful of late but I’m talking professional sports).

Luckily I don’t have to worry about that problem. I set myself up to be knocked right back down. I am Bart Logan: Sports Masochist.

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‘Waiting’ Jackets drop third straight

It was bound to happen.

Call it a good team going cold. Call it a bad team overachieving. Call it the law of averages.

At the begining of the season, who would have predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the final team in the NHL to lose two games in a row? Is it unfathomable that they could lose three?

Of course not, nor should the white flag be raised on the season because of Wednesday night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. A season cannot be lost because of one, two or three defeats. It’s about how a team responds to a losses.

Heading into the midweek match-up with their Music City rivals, the Blue Jackets and their fanbase had to come to grips with a staunch reality: they’re no Detroit. The Red Wings are the class of the entire league. They have been for the past 15 years. And the Union Blue skated with the best at times last Friday and Sunday, only to see the Red Wings shift up a gear when they needed to take both games.

There was no shame in either of those losses, although head coach Scott Arniel and his staff have taken it upon themselves to eliminate the mentality of moral victories in the CBJ locker room. It was how they responded against the Predators — in the third straight game against a divisional foe — that was concerning.

The Blue Jackets were unable to capitalize on a plethora of scoring chances early in the first, while the Predators needed only one good opportunity to take the lead. The Blue Jackets fought back to tie the game not once but twice, and even took the lead midway through the third, only relinquish it less than two minutes later.

The Blue Jackets pushed for the win in overtime. The Predators hunkered down for a shootout. Once the five minutes of 4-on-4 were over, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the two points were lost.

“I’m never really satisfied with not winning a hockey game. I don’t care about how it went — if it went 65 minutes, or a shootout, whatever,” Arniel said. “I’m more upset about giving up that third goal. We’ve been pretty good this year when we’ve gotten leads late in games of clamping it down. That one shouldn’t have happened.”

That goal shouldn’t have mattered. The Blue Jackets had chance after chance to claim the win in 60 minutes, but seemed to be in a reactive mode after being unable to capitalize in the opening stanza.

“I think we were waiting,” defenseman Kris Russell said. “We had a team with fresh legs — they played last night. I thought we had more opportunities to put them away but they kept coming back.”

Columbus got a pair of goals from Antoine Vermette, who is quietly starting to produce on the scoresheet at the pace the organization expected. He has four goals and seven points in his last four games after being held without a point 10 of 12 prior games. RJ Umberger added a pair of helpers to take sole possession of the of the franchise record of consecutive games with a point. He has now registered a point in 10 straight game, eclipsing the nine-game mark held by Rick Nash (twice) and Andrew Cassels.

Russell also scored his long-awaited first goal of the season, a slap shot from the high slot seconds after a power play had expired. The game itself was the Caroline, Alberta native’s tour de force on the young season, as he finally appeared unshackled from an early season knee injury. He skated the puck regularly, pinched liberally and even threw the body around.

“(Russell) has been frustrated with himself and he’s wanted the offensive side to come,” Arniel said. “I hope he gains tons of confidence from (the game) because he was outstanding.”

But it came down to burying chances, and that’s precisely what Nashville did when they needed. Arniel said his team only gave up five scoring chances through two periods. The Predators put two of them in the net. The Blue Jackets had a half dozen prime scoring chances in the first 15 minutes.

“I think overall our first period was pretty good. I don’t think the score was representative,” Vermette said. “Tonight we could’ve had a better fate.”

The third period mirrored the first, with the Jackets getting the majority of quality chances, but this time around they got a pair of goals to show for it and take the lead. They held it for 97 seconds and the Predators were able to sap any momentum with Kevin Klein’s goal. Klein kept the puck in the zone after a half-hearted clearing attempt from recently-returned Ethan Moreau and stepped into a heavy slap shot, which goaltender Steve Mason likely never saw.

“Mason made some big stops for us,” Russell said. “I think this is one we have to bury down.”

Mason played well enough in net to win — he could hardly be faulted for any of the Predators’ goals. In all three cases, the defense appeared to lapse, whether they were puck-chasing on Colin Wilson’s or Sergei Kostitsyn’s; or failing to clear the puck out of the zone on Klein’s.

As for the shootout… well that’s never exactly been his strong suite (as his 7-13 record supports). Steve Sullivan abused him and the Jackets’ attempts left much to be desired.

Most coaches and players will tell you a shootout is a crapshoot, that they still earned a point. But it’s not about the one point won in Wednesday’s loss, it’s two points against Buffalo on Friday.

The Blue Jackets have yet to truly face adversity under Arniel. They’re starting to get a taste of it now.

(Originally published at InsideHockey.com)

Cavs get royally screwed

LeBron James made his "decision" to join the Heat, shocking a franchise, city and entire state. (Getty Images)

I told myself I would stay away from the LeBron subject. I was so close. Oh well.

In case you’ve been hiding out in a nuclear fallout shelter in anticipation of “The Decision,” LeBron James, the “King of Akron,” has elected to join fellow NBA All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.

To do so he left $30 million on the table in Cleveland, and left a franchise, city and state stunned and broken-hearted — in the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise (forgive me): royally screwed.

James announced his “decision” in a one-hour TV special on ESPN Thursday evening, declaring that he was “taking (his) talents to South Beach.” It was the culmination of unprecedented media coverage of the free agent process, which saw teams fly into Cleveland to make presentations for James, pitching their franchises and cities. All the while, hundreds of Cavaliers loyalists waited outs in the streets with signs pleading with their superstar to remain in Northeast Ohio.

After a week of pandering, and after virtually every other significant free agent had already committed to a team, James made his announcement on National TV. I told myself I would not watch “The Decision” because there could not be a good outcome.

If James left, “The Decision” would surpass the likes of “The Drive,” the Browns leaving and the Game Seven of the 1997 World Series as the most painful and trauma-inducing event in Cleveland sports history.

If he stayed, he was just an arrogant egomaniac, but at least he would be our arrogant egomaniac.

Either way, James would win, and I did not want to give him that satisfaction. But, as is the case so often with car wrecks, I found myself drawn to it nonetheless.

Perhaps it was because I felt there was no way that James would agree to play second fiddle to Wade in Miami, as was being reported throughout the day. Chicago, New York, even New Jersey I could possibly see, but Miami?

I found it hard to believe that LeBron’s “camp” would leak his destination in advance of “The Decision” after being so tight-lipped throughout this entire fiasco. Surely this was just a ploy for a reality TV-style twist. You don’t learn who wins the Bachelor before the season finale!

Finally, I felt there was no way that James, Ohio’s favorite son, the “Chosen One,” would give the world’s biggest “f*** you” to his hometown, his franchise, his fans and his city ON NATIONAL FREAKING TELEVISION!

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Shortly after “The Decision,” Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert released a statement to fans, chastising James. Well, “chastising” might not do the letter justice.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is under fire for a harsh letter criticizing James. (Getty Images)

Gilbert tore into James for his “narcissistic, self-promotional build-up” of “The Decision.” He accused James of “cowardly betrayal” and personally guaranteed the Cavs would “win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former ‘king’ wins one.” He finished the statement claiming that the dreaded Cleveland “curse” would follow James to Miami.

Ballsy, ballsy move, Gilbert. I never thought I’d be defending one of the men most responsible for bringing casinos to Ohio but, my hat is off to you.

I see absolutely nothing wrong with his statement, well aside from some of his font decisions. Obviously he may have a hard time following through with the NBA Championship guarantee, but it showed some guts. He told Cleveland what they wanted and needed to hear.

But, the national, and even some local media, have taken this as an opportunity to criticize the owner, calling him childish for being so peeved. They claim that his statement will be a deterrent for other free agents who might consider Cleveland this summer and in the coming years.

Uh what free agents? David Lee? Raymond Felton? Of course those are the pieces the Cavaliers were missing! But, now there’s no way they would want to come to the powerhouse franchise that is a LeBron-less Cavaliers because of the owner said mean things.

I’m sure Carmelo Anthony is having second thoughts about signing that max contract in Cleveland next summer all because Gilbert called a duck a duck.

Free agents weren’t coming to Cleveland with LeBron on board. Now that he’s jumped ship? I don’t want to think about it.

Now Cleveland has to find a way to reshape a roster that was catered for James. Former general manager Danny Ferry added numerous pieces over the years (see Ben Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, Antwan Jamison), sacrificing the future of the franchise to try to win with James. Then Ferry and former head coach Mike Brown were forced to fall on their swords after the season in hopes that a management makeover would help woo the megalomaniac.

But, in the end none of the pampering was enough to bring a title to Cleveland or keep “the king” in Northeast Ohio. James left the Cavaliers with a roster that now rivals that of the pre-Amare New York Knicks — well not quite — and a fan base that has been fiercely loyal to their superstar with a nice kick to the teeth.

Somewhere I can picture Art Modell skipping around — singing show tunes with John Elway perhaps — now that he’s been dethroned as the most hated man in Northeast Ohio.

Elsewhere, a father as consoling his young son, trying to explain to him why his hero from just down Interstate 77 is spurning the team and town made him their monarch.

And throughout the state, a generation of youngsters, who had the potential to change the mentality of an entire fan base,  will now adopt the traditional, fatalist and cynical approach Cleveland sports.

Like we needed anymore of that.

Soccer, Explained Away

From time to time, the “staff” here at Bart Takes on Sports Cliches will come upon other fledgling sports writers doing their part to fight the good fight against ESPN. For instance, I highly recommend you check out former The Post assistant sports editor Rob Mixer’s blog, which never shies away from taking shot or two at the sports “news” giant. But, I digress.

Seeing as it is the first meaningful day of the 2010 World Cup (at least here in the good ‘ole USA), I thought it appropriate to take an in-depth look at the beautiful game. Alas, famed sports writer Cal Biffney beat me to it. So without further ado, “Soccer, Explained Away.”

Soccer, Explained Away

Soccer, the game the Europeans call “football” and the Americans call “tedious”, is gearing up for its quadrennial cluster- flock which they oh-so pretentiously call the World Cup.

While we Americans brace ourselves for a month-long diversion from Real Sports and face the threat of having portions of actual televised games inflicted on us if we let our guard down — a brief primer on this sport — like competition is perhaps in order.

Soccer is a game in which 11 players on a side kick a spherical object down a 110 meter rectangular field toward a defended goal. It is believed to have been invented by the Scots in the Eighteenth century. However, with the demise of their short-lived Highlands Boulder League in 1803, many hoped the game would be lost to civilization. Eventually, as with all things Scottish, the game was stolen by the British and refined over the centuries to its current level of abject boredom.

While the goals themselves are large enough to park two garbage trucks bumper to bumper, even the most elite teams are utterly incapable of scoring more than two goals in any 90 minute game. On those rare occasions when three goals are scored in a game, Parliament goes into special session and Euro Disney opens its turnstiles to all. While four goal games are virtually unheard of — during the last recorded instance, a 4- 0 trouncing of Liverpool FC by Real Madrid in 2004 — it is well documented that the silly looking guy on the back of the 50 pound note actually shed stigmata tears.

While Soccer’s irredeemable vapidity sets it apart, it does share one sports attribute with a full- blooded American sport: NASCAR racing. These two pastimes, to the exclusion of all other respectable sports, have sold out their image and their outerwear to soulless corporations: Chelsea to Samsung, Arsenal to Emirates Air, Real Madrid to bwim.com… the shameful list goes on.   Even the once proud Manchester United Club —formerly the inspiration to kit and kin throughout The British Empire— now bears the satanic mark of “AIG”. Nothing bespeaks soccer greatness like, you know, single-handedly causing the collapse of the world’s economy for a goddamn generation!

Like many other elements of the game, soccer’s penalty scheme is particularly egregious. Yellow card cautions are liberally dispensed when one player brushes the shoestrings of another, causing him to forthwith dive onto the turf and spend five minutes writhing in faux agony. The red card, on the other hand, is handed out when one player actually does trip another, who forthwith dives onto the turf and spends ten minutes writhing in faux agony… until shuffled off the pitch on a gurney to the solemn strains of Greig’s Funeral March.

But of all the penalties in all the sports in all the world, nothing compares to “offsides” in soccer. As far as can be ascertained, “offsides” is the penalty that is called when a goal is scored at a critical point in the game, which threatens to make the game marginally interesting or competitive. To avoid such a catastrophic outcome, soccer officials have been painstakingly trained to call this penalty judiciously– irrespective of the positions of actual players on the field– and to wave off any pesky goals that might have the unwelcome effect of invigorating the crowd.

Deprived of any opportunity for a goal or a change of momentum in the game, the soccer fan (live or tuning in on TV) returns to his slumber.  Those who brought knitting projects to the game return to their craft. Those who did not, well, they drink excessive amounts of beer and sing …sort of… a raunchy, post- apocalyptic collection of bawdy tunes generally categorized as “football songs.” These “songs” are worthy of anthropological study—so that future cultures can enact rigorous laws to prohibit their public rendering.

But perhaps nowhere is soccer’s’ futility more succinctly expressed than in its roster of so-called “football heroes.” Not since the Mussolini Regime have such a collection of self-important, over- compensated and outright annoying individuals occupied such a lofty perch on the European stage.

David Beckham serves as a prime example. With all the loyalty and fidelity of a Somali Pirate, Beckham consistently abandons flag and country to mindlessly follow the banner of greed across international boundaries. After a stint at Manchester United in the (so-called) Premier League, Beckham tinkled on the Union Jack and signed with Real Madrid in 2003. Dissatisfied with the huge sums of money offered up by the Spaniards, Beckham bid them “buenos dias” for the sun and surf of Southern California to sign with the L.A. Galaxy.  Thus far during his L.A. stint, he has led the Galaxy to previously unattained heights of mediocrity. Not content with even this level of brazenness, Beckham then sold out LA to play midfield for Italian giant AC Milan, which, dear reader, brings the Mussolini analogy to full circle.

Other examples of unworthy soccer heroes are abundant: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo , Roberto Carlos… the list goes mercilessly on.  Unlike their American counterparts— Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez and Bret Favre, for example—who labor hard in relative obscurity for love of the game alone, these footballers are unworthy icons of corporate greed. They are a bane to our youth and should be banned from our shores until they have publicly renounced their vile sport and earnestly asked forgiveness.

So as this year’s World Cup winds laboriously on, we Americans can actually take pride in the fact that we do not excel at this lackluster, overrated sport. For us, defeat in soccer is Victory!

But in the event that any of my numerous readers actually find themselves inexplicably drawn to watch the Cup, to you I say:” USA!” “USA!” “USA!”

Stanley Cup Preview

Chris Pronger and Mike Richards have been phenomenal for the Flyers so far. Don't expect things to change in the Stanley Cup Finals.

I wonder how many people picked the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers to play for the Stanley Cup in September? I did. I definitely was not alone.

The Blackhawks were the ‘sexy’ pick in the West. They had a young, talented roster that made it to the Conference Finals the year before and added Marian Hossa in the summer. Duncan Keith had emerged as a premier defenseman in the league and Brent Seabrook had made incredible strides as well. Sure there were questions about how Christobal Huet would handle a full season as a starter, but with a defense boasting the likes of Keith, Seabrook and Brian Campbell, he didn’t exactly have to be Tony Esposito.

The Flyers looked like a team in much the same mold. The Flyers were arguably just as deep as Chicago up front, led by 46-goal-scorer Jeff Carter. The addition of Chris Pronger, one of the most respected and at the same time despised defensemen in the league, to a lineup that already featured Scott Hartnell, Daniel Carcillo and Mike “Bobby Clarke Jr.” Richards had visions of the Bullies dancing in the heads of the Philadelphia faithful. Of course, they still had not solved the same problem the team had had since Ron Hextall was between the pipes, but surely Ray Emery had turned his game around in Russia and was ready to return to his 2007 Playoffs form.

Two deep and dynamic groups of forwards. Two star-studded defenses. Two big questions in net.

Chicago came flying out of the gate to start the regular season and remained one of the top teams in the West all season. When Huet and his .895 save percentage did not cut it for the ‘Hawks, they gave 26-year-old Antti Niemi a shot. All the back-up-turned-starter-turned-Conn-Symthe-dark-horse did was go 26-7-4 with seven shutouts. The Blackhawks finished second in the West, one point behind San Jose for the top spot.

For the most part, Chicago’s playoff run has been a cake walk. It took the ‘Hawks six games to dispatch both Nashville and Vancouver before sweeping away the top-ranked Sharks in the Western Conference Finals (see Byfuglien, Dustin). Captain Jonathan Toews is leading the playoffs in scoring with 26 points and Niemi has been excellent in net when they have needed him to be.

The Flyers on the other hand had a very different route. After starting off a disappointing 13-11-1 and finding themselves in 10th place in the East to start the month of December, the Flyers fired head coach John Stevens and brought in former Cup-winner Peter Laviolette. The Emery experiment was a failure as he was hampered by injury and inconsistency before going down for the season after surgery on his right hip. Journeyman goaltender Brian Boucher filled in and general manager Paul Holmgren brought in back-up Michael Leighton, who had played under Laviolette in Carolina.Despite a revolving door in net, and injuries up front the Flyers limped into the playoffs on the last day of the season, courtesy of a shootout victory over the New York Rangers.

If you picked the Flyers to make it this far after the season, and weren’t from Philadelphia, would you mind picking up a couple lottery tickets for me?

The consensus was that the New Jersey Devils, with their mix of gritty U.S. Olympic heroes (Zach Parise and Jamie Langunbrunner), the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and one of the greatest of all-time between the pipes, would make short work of the inconsistent and injury-riddled Flyers. Richards and Boucher had other plans, and in one of the most surprising first round upsets, Philly ousted the Devils in five games.

Next came the Boston Bruins, and we all know what happened there. Not only did the Flyers become only the third team in NHL history to come back in a series after being down 3-0, but Leighton came on in relief of the injured Boucher in game five and gave up only four goals in three games.

The Flyers silenced any remaining critics by shattering Montreal’s dreams of a 25th Stanley Cup and first Finals appearance since 1993. Leighton shutout the Habs three times and it only took five short games to knock them out, despite a possible sabotage attempt at the Bell Centre.

And that, my friends, is how we get to where we are today – anxiously awaiting the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. The series starts Saturday, where the United Center will be the setting for game one. The Blackhawks may have been Cup favorites all year long, but Philadelphia matches up with them as well as any team in the league.

Both teams are riding hot goaltenders. Both teams are getting Conn-Smythe-worthy performances from their captains. But only one team can win it, and I’m going with the Flyers for three reasons.

1) Chris Pronger

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren acquired Pronger this offseason for precisely this reason. Pronger’s playoff performance, for the most part, has been spectacular. He has showed up all the critics who questioned how much he had left in the tank after a disappointing showing in the Olympics. Pronger has been a workhorse averaging nearly 29 minutes, tops in the playoffs. He’ll be on the ice against the Byfuglien-Toews-Kane line all night long and he has the size to handle Dusty B. Plus, Pronger has the experience. He won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and made it the game seven the year before with Edmonton. You can make a convincing argument that he was the most valuable player on both of those teams, and I for one think he’ll have his name on the short list by the time this series ends.

2) Mike Richards

With all due respect to Mr. Toews in Chicago, is there a captain in this league that does more for his team? Richards is second in playoff scoring with 21 pionts. He’s scored or set up crucial goals throughout Philly’s remarkable run. He registered five points in the Flyers’ four-game comeback over the Bruins and three in the game five clincher over Montreal. But Richards may be even more valuable without the puck on his stick. He has been a catalyst for an excellent Flyers penalty kill and he’s not afraid to lower the shoulder and make a run. He’s rock-em sock-em hockey player who’ll do anything to will his team to victory, just ask Montreal. And, with the return of Carter from injury, he’ll have another option on the power play, making the Flyers even more dangerous.

3) Marian Hossa

Forget all the ‘curse’ talk with Hossa. There has been nothing supernatural about his playoff performance. Hossa has all but disappeared for the ‘Hawks in the past two rounds. He registered only three points in the series against Vancouver and only a single point in the sweep of San Jose. While he continues to contribute with solid two-way play, it looks like he is shaping up for another Finals disappearing act. Sure, Chicago has plenty of depth at forward, but so does Philadelphia, and their stars are producing. If the Flyers are able to contain Toews and co., Chicago is really going to need Hossa to step it up, and I just don’t see that happening.

With all that said, this has the makings for a classic Finals match-up. Let’s just say I don’t think fans are going to have that empty feeling that they had after the Conference Finals ended so abruptly.

Prediction: Philadelphia in seven